November 13, 2018

Identity, judgement, and the power plays that find their roots in clothing, with specific reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a new representative-elect in The White House, representing NY-14. Megan Garber talks about how the 29-year-old politician has been surrounded by an (un)fair share of gossip and rumor in her short stint in DC. Earlier this week she tweeted about repeatedly being mistaken for an intern. One day later, Eddie Scarry, a writer for the Washington Examiner, tweeted a photo of her taken from behind as she walked down a corridor wearing a tailored black jacket and carrying a coat. The caption: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

Clothing as identity
We represent ourselves every day through our clothing, whether we like it or not. Supposedly not caring what we wear still consists of making a choice. The problem with the Scarry situation—setting aside the topics of fragile masculinity and exclusion tactics—is that expectations of how we represent ourselves differ from person to person. This means that clothing, as such an obvious and instant medium of judgement, can easily be used to divide as well as to connect.

Division or connection
Through our sartorial choices, we assign ourselves to tribes. We find brands that fit our beliefs, hobbies, or simply have been worn by people we admire, and wear them as suits of armor. And, just like suits of armor emblazoned with flags and embedded with meaning, our outfits divide us into enemies or allies. Ocasio-Cortez’s clothing has been used as a vessel in which to carry personal judgement, and raise points of belonging and power. As a candidate who promised to challenge, to change the status-quo, Ocasio-Cortez is an easy target for those who strive to keep American politics a stationary, stagnant club. It is not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez’s most basic actions–existing in The White House, and wearing clothes—have been the target of derision and seen in themselves as challenges.

Final thoughts
The power of clothing to form identity and send messages are some of its great qualities, and the reason many of us at MAEKAN are fascinated by it. Being instantly visible, clothing has the potential to bring people together at first sight, or divide without a question asked. Describing clothing this way isn’t taking up a position—it is a fact. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez has made such an impact so quickly, intentionally or unintentionally (almost definitely the latter), by wearing certain very normal things, reveals a demographic of insecure, sensitive and childish ‘professionals’ in American politics. More power to Alexandria, may she continue to upset and challenge.

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